Listening to Autism: A letter from Mrs. Teacher Lady

The following post has been written by an adult woman with whom I have had the privilege to correspond. She recently contacted me to share how reading other perspectives impacts her in a positive way. I asked her if she would be interested in sharing her story here, and she has written a lovely post detailing some of her experiences and perspectives about being an adult with autism in the teaching profession. We have a long way to go with creating a society where all people feel safe and comfortable to reveal their neurological diversity without concern for a negative response.  I am honoured to be able to share her perspective.  Her anonymous name for the purposes of this post is Mrs. Teacher Lady… and here is her story: 

I wanted to thank you for all the hard work you do in not only helping your son through his journey and helping him accept himself, but helping others on their own journey as well. I wanted to share with you a little bit of my story. I have always found it difficult to open up, but your posts about adults on the spectrum are helping.

I am an aspie-mom with two children on the spectrum; one with Aspergers and one with PDD-NOS plus ODD, possible bipolar, and dysgraphia. I am also a teacher.

Below you will find what I recently posted on a parent support site to which I belong. I was really uncertain about posting it, not sure if it was the right thing to do. I have been overwhelmed with responses of hugs and thank yous for sharing. It was really nice to have that.

Here is my story:

“It is always about what words to use, more than the actual story. The ability to word things has always been an issue for me. There is so much churning in my mind that it is difficult to sort, and when I try to, my mind seems to go blank. So I let it churn. I find that eventually my mind starts to form order in the chaos and words start pouring out of me.

I wish I had the freedom to tell people that I have Aspergers like my son does. There have been times when a stranger at a store will try to engage him and he will tell them that he has Aspergers and he has trouble answering certain questions. I didn’t grow up knowing that I was on the spectrum, and in my profession ‘coming out’ is not really a good idea. There is a real fear that if parents find out that their child’s teacher is autistic there will be a back lash. There are so many misconceptions about ASD that people would see me as “unfit”. They don’t understand that an NT can also be “unfit” and that autism has nothing to with your ability to teach. So, I hide my stims as best as I can, which is very difficult when I am under stress.

It was a really rough year last year, I was way overloaded, and I needed help. I couldn’t hide my symptoms anymore. I needed to tell someone. I went to the union president. She told me that she really didn’t know anything about autism and that I shouldn’t say anything to anyone, because she, and many others on staff, did not trust the administrators. She did help me, though, without having to bring up the autism issue.

I am happy that my son feels safe enough to tell people he has Aspergers. My daughter is embarrassed and really doesn’t understand why she does what she does. I think developmentally she is just not ready yet. Maybe, some day, both she and I can feel free to tell others we are autistic and we are okay with that.”

Why did I finally write what I wrote? I have always been a private person and it is hard to express how I feel, and I feel a lot. I have been accused by my own family members that I don’t feel, that I am selfish, and that I don’t care about anyone else. I have heard it more than once and it felt like a sword going through me each time. I feel. I feel so much that it physically hurts.

Yes, I agree that I have trouble relating to things that I have had no prior experience with. I can’t seem to put myself in other people’s shoes, but I do care, I just don’t show it in ways that people tend to understand.

My response time to events is not always timed with the event. In fact, I have no warning when I will react to something. It could be at that time, or it could be months later. I was once told by a doctor that I was the most stoic person she had ever met. I didn’t want to be. I wanted people to understand how much pain I was in and that I needed help. I just didn’t know how.

I was officially diagnosed having Aspergers shortly after my son was. He was seven years old at the time, almost eight, and I was 35. He smiled when we told him his diagnosis. He was so relieved. He had felt so different and really thought there was something wrong with him. We told him that having Aspergers meant that his brain was wired differently, that he saw the world differently than other people.

When I got my official diagnosis I felt like a burden had been lifted. Having a name to explain what I had been going through all my life helped so much. I wasn’t strange, or weird, or broken. I felt I could finally be me. My family noticed the change, too. I seemed more relaxed to them, my symptoms also became more apparent. I stopped trying to hide them. I also stopped trying to be the person my family had always expected me to be. I starting being me, the real me.

As a teacher, though, it was a whole different story. I had to maintain an image, even though I wanted so badly to tell people that I was autistic. I wanted them to understand me, but I was afraid. I had always tried to stay in the shadows, tried not to get noticed. I have a tendency of making social faux pas and I could never understand what I did wrong. I felt alone and isolated among my colleagues.

I want to feel accepted for who I am. I want people to understand that I am not wired to function the way people are expected to in our society, and that I might need help from time to time. But I can’t! Not the way society is now! Not the way autistics are viewed in a non-autistic world!

Little by little I am doing what I can: spreading the word about autism, that it is not a disease, and there is no “cure“. I can understand parents of children who are non-verbal and non-functional of wanting to have a “normal” child. They want to be able to talk to their child, they want their child to have a “normal” life, or what they feel is normal anyway.

In the school where I used to teach there was a student who was like that. He couldn’t talk and had to have a para-educator with him all the time. People were frustrated by him or they laughed at him. They called him a ‘character’ when he acted out. I wanted to grab those people, make them understand that he wasn’t being a character - he was in pain. I could understand him… I could empathize.

There were times that he would get out of the special education room and he always seemed to end up in my classroom. He never caused any problems. I figured his para-educator would find him eventually… and he seemed to act differently with me than others. This boy was a hair-puller and really hurt people. He once got behind me and grabbed my hair, but he didn’t pull. He just held on to it like my daughter does and I let him. He let go of it when I asked. His para-educator was really surprised by that.

I asked my husband once why he thought this particular student acted the way he did around me. He said that he thought this boy and I shared a connection – a non-verbal connection: we understood each other at a level that others could not.

I don’t see autism as a tragedy; I see it a different way. Autism is a part of me, as it is a part of both my children. You take away the autism – you take away the person. I like who I am. I once asked my son if he ever wanted to not have Aspergers. He told me no, it was who he was and he was fine with it.

I hope what I have written is helpful. Again, the churning started spilling out and I had to write until I was finished. Thank you for this opportunity of helping people understand a little better what it is like to be living on the autism spectrum.

Sincerely and with hope,

Mrs. Teacher Lady


Thank you, Mrs. Teacher Lady,  for sharing of yourself so bravely and generously. I am moved and honoured by the privilege of sharing your post. Your voice needs and deserves to be heard – to remind us all that there are many opportunities to encourage others who experience the world differently: the person who lives next door, your mechanic, someone struggling in the grocery line, or even your child’s teacher.  For them, and for our children – and for their futures… I thank you!!

You are a hero of mine!

Leah

_________________________________________________________

30 Days of Autism is a project designed to promote social understanding and offer a glimpse into the perspectives of those whose lives are touched by Autism.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2012)

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About Leah Kelley

Leah Kelley, MEd., Educator, Parent, Speaker, Social Justice Activist. Writes blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding & neurodiversity. Co producer of documentary: Vectors of Autism. Twitter: @leah_kelley Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/leahkelley13/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/30-Days-of-Autism-Leah-Kelley/154311301315814
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29 Responses to Listening to Autism: A letter from Mrs. Teacher Lady

  1. Life Skills Teacher says:

    Mrs. Teacher Lady,
    As a teacher with Aspergers, I completely relate to your story. My only difference is that my administration and paraprofessioinals know I am on the spectrum. I have to tell you though, even in the special education environment I am in, non-spectrumy teachers and administrators don’t get me. They have faith, that like our students, I will change and improve (I.e. become more NT.) I fit in better when I am well accommodated, it is true. I’m less likely to become overwhelmed and have issues with accommodations. I’m still working to help them see that doesn’t make me any less autistic.

    • Aspie Kt says:

      I was so :-) to find this (perfect timing) – I am a special ed teacher (of adults with supported learning needs) and am on the spectrum myself – I know of 2 others, who like me are Aspie, and support students on the spectrum…and I have just found more :-)…only this week I posted on a couple of AS community FB pages to try and connect with others who teach…seems I have just found some of those I was looking for!
      Maybe we need a close FB page to chat!

  2. Ictus75 says:

    Wonderful! I cried because I know how it is to have to hide your secret for fear of reprisals. I smiled because you connected with the one student who needed connection the most. His Aspie Radar knew you were understanding. I hope you can teach forever and one day feel safe enough to tell others about your Autism!!!

  3. I keep hoping I’ll meet a teacher like you at my daughter’s school. The school that employs you is so lucky to have you.

  4. Forgotten says:

    I was afraid to tell people at work when I got my diagnosis as well. I told my immediate supervisor who had me explain it to him & how it affected me. He also asked me if I needed any additional accommodations. I’ve been at my job for almost 5 years so he knows me pretty well. I don’t fit in with my coworkers & he has always accepted me as I am.

    I think it would benefit you having one person at work who understands how you are but I also think you need to stop trying to hide your stims. I remember several teachers who were probably on the spectrum & they were some of my favorites b/c they weren’t like everyone else. :) Don’t be afraid to be yourself. I guarantee you that having an explanation for your differences will help others understand you better.

    Also, most people panic when someone grabs their hair. It’s a natural reaction. You have experience with a child who enjoys the texture of hair & I’m sure that’s why the child from school was ok w/ you. He knew you would understand why he needed to touch your hair. And you did & you didn’t panic as soon as he touched you. :) I’m glad you made a connection with him. :) He probably feels safe with you is why he likes your classroom. :) Hang in there. If you feel like your teaching record speaks for itself, then you should have no fear of what others knowing your diagnosis will mean. You are a wonderful resource! :)

  5. A Quiet Week says:

    I understand you. Our family only began to learn about our places on the spectrum after my son was diagnosed. The information brought my entire life into focus. I finally understood why I had so much trouble fitting in. I understood why I did certain “weird” things. It was the greatest relief in my life. When I came out of the autism closet, I did so with a trumpet. No one was surprised. Just like you, when the binding came off, it was liberating.

    I don’t work. And when I did work my hours were part-time. I could hold myself together for a few hours a day but the strain was too much. If I would have understood my wiring I could have helped myself.

    You are a teacher–a golden person! You can help so many young people with your wisdom and insight. By gently raising awareness, you can achieve much more than the clangor of trumpeting and drumbeating.

    You are a superhero–your secret autistic identity will give you superpowers with those you teach.

    Thank you for sharing with us. You have many, many brothers and sisters who are grateful for your ability to educate all people about autism.

    Good Luck!
    Lori

  6. What a wonderful post! Thank you, Leah for opening up your blog to her and thank you Mrs. Teacher Lady for sharing your story with us. It’s sad of course because it would mean the world to me if my son could have an openly autistic teacher. What an incredible thing it would be for him to see someone who ‘moved like him’ as Julia Bascom wrote. But, I completely understand why you might need to be careful and I am sorry that is the case.
    Your story and your voice here are wonderful though! I really hope you find a format that allows you to keep sharing it with the rest of us!

  7. I have been called stoic too, but in reality I am hypersensitive. I think being stoic is like a defense mechanism for me. Society is harsh and the stoic side of my personality is like a state of partial shut down until I am in a safe environment, like living in the desert and remaining motionless and sitting in the shade all the time in order to survive, otherwise I would succumb to the elements. But in the right environment, isolated from the outside world, I turn into a different person. And even though NTs, aren’t consciously aware of the harshness all around them, I think they are still affected by it.

    I think we need more autistic teachers because neurotypicals can learn so much from the autistic perspective, from that same non-verbal connection. I know that I have had a profound influence on certain neurotypical people I’ve known, and it is my autism that has had that effect on people. I have often wondered what it would be like for a neurotypical person to live on an island surrounded by only autistics for a year. Imagine how they might change.

  8. spectrumscribe says:

    Hello,

    I can relate very well to your post.

    But this is the part of your letter that really got my attention.

    ‘I felt alone and isolated among my colleagues.
    I want to feel accepted for who I am.’

    I blog and tweet anonymously as do some of the people who have already responded here.

    Perhaps that might be a way for you to reach out and connect with others like you.

    You have a wonderfully positive attitude and a refreshing perspective.

    Twitter is a good place to start and a very effective way of promoting a blog/website, if you find yourself wanting to post in more detail.

    Until next time :-)

  9. Mrs. Teacher Lady says:

    I wanted to thank you all for the wonderful comments. So supportive! I am so grateful that Leah has given me the opportunity to express myself in this fashion. We have recently moved to a new area and am hoping for a fresh start. Maybe here I will feel free enough to let people know that I am autistic.

    • Aspie Kt says:

      THANK YOU! – I am a special ed teacher (of adults with supported learning needs) and am on the spectrum myself – I know of 2 others, who like me are Aspie, and support students on the spectrum…and I have just found more :-)…only this week I posted on a couple of AS community FB pages to try and connect with others who teach…seems I have just found some of those I was looking for!
      Maybe we need a close FB page to chat!

  10. rebelmommy says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I am a former professional teacher as well, and now I teach my Autistic sons at home, in a completely different way! In a twist, I would be a parent who feels the exact opposite of some of the fears and negative attitudes you mentioned towards teachers on the spectrum. I actually wished just today, for my sons to have more Autistic adults in their lives, in teaching roles, and in every other positive way! There is something I cannot give them as a NT Mother and teacher. My best to you! I hope that you find a peaceful way to express yourself as you need to!

  11. Hi Mrs. Teacher Lady,

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. :) I wish that it were safe for more of us to “come out” autistic in our adult lives. It’s a horrifying catch-22: if we don’t come out, then no one realizes that “autistics” in general are competent and good at their jobs. They only continue to live and believe the stereotypes that keep us silent and afraid. And yet if we do come out, our abilities are suddenly doubted, for no reason other than now we have a label that stereotypically (and not really) suggests that some who share our label would do badly in our professions.

    I’m an autistic young adult who is also (among other things) a teacher. I’ve spent the past 10 years teaching many different things (both athletic and academic – I’m a PhD student in sciences), and have received incredible feedback on my teaching skills. I was recognized last year as being the best teacher at one of my jobs (where *all* staff are teachers). All of my bosses have complimented me, and I get, with some frequency, students who go out of their way to thank me personally or go to my boss to compliment my teaching. I do not say this to brag, but rather to qualify the statement I’m about to make: I am a very good teacher. I might, one day, venture to state that I am an excellent teacher, but given my very “advanced” age of 22, and my “vast” experience (sarcasm), I definitely have much to learn and improve upon. But at any rate, I feel that I can say with confidence and honesty that I am a very good teacher.

    Yet when I tell people who know me as this very good teacher that I am autistic, I get the following response: “You can’t possibly be autistic, you’re such a good teacher!”. And when I disclose my label to people who don’t really know me, I hear “You can’t be a good teacher, you’re autistic!”. It drives me crazy that people always assume that these are mutually exclusive. But the truth of the matter is that I’m such a good teacher BECAUSE I am autistic, not despite being autistic. Because being autistic has given me tools to think about problems and accept and work with people in totally different ways that help them to understand and perform tasks they want to do.

    So thank you for sharing your story. Know there are more of us out there, hiding in plain sight. It’s so important for kids to have role models they feel comfortable and safe around. So thank you, and lots of courage to you. :) You really *are* a superhero!

    –E

  12. Thank you for sharing this intimate story with us. I have to agree with your husband when he said that you had a connection with that child. I seen it many times when my son who is autistic and not really verbal that he attracts kids with ASD. there is this little girl at the playground who never plays with anyone, but when we are there she follows us like a little puppy dog. every where we go if there is an autistic child they end up with us or my son navigates himself toward them. it is fascinating and I would love if someone actually do a research on this, there is some connection out there that we can not identify only see the interaction. God bless you for helping these kids , and I hope one day you never have to feel so stressed out about it. I hope one day people just see what others can offer, not what condition they have. Hugs to you and keep your head high.

  13. Still in hiding says:

    I saw this post and cried. Cause not only can I identify with it but I’m still in hiding. My story a very painful one and my ASD journey not complete. I’m still working through it in therapy. I almost wrote part of my story but then erased it twice so I truly understand this teachers fear. Thank you for writing this stuff so people like me can read. One day I’ll be brave like this. One day I’ll be able to tell the world I have Autism. Nope wasn’t stupid wasn’t bad or unable to understand just Autistic.

    • Leah Kelley says:

      Dear Still in Hiding,

      I am so pleased that you shared your experience and I would like to reach out to you and let you know that there is a whole world of people on Twitter (and other social media sites) who are writing about their experiences and who also just happen to be adults with autism/autistic adults. There are so many of us that are working to create a society/culture that is more accepting of diversity in all areas – but particularly for those who experience and process the world somewhat differently.

      Your comment made me cry – as the pain of judgment and the fear of disclosure is so evident. I too hope that one day you feel you have the safety and support to be open about being autistic. Please consider visiting some of the blogs of those who have commented here. I think you may find there is a community of those who understand… and who will be able to be supportive if and when you might be looking for that.

      Thank you, as well, for your kind words of encouragement. I appreciate your comment and hope that you will feel comfortable in sharing your perspective here.

      Leah

      • Still in hiding says:

        I watch I read and I discover. One day I’ll be stronger. When you are denied the diagnosis as a child. You are denied the ability to see your self and accept your self. Love your self. When you seek the diagnosis as an adult you free your self. See your self, become your self. You then have to learn how to accept your self and love your self. When you are abused by others because of who you are and what makes you just you, it becomes harder to find that true place of acceptance because you have to reach deeper. My journey is long but one worth while. I wrote back cause I hope that any one who reads this will try harder to accept people without judgement. But also to hopefully stop any parent from denying their child to know them selves. It brought me more pain as an adult than if I knew as a child. It has affected me greatly. It’s people like you though that make the ones that hide have comfort and learn more about them selves in comfort. I don’t have to worry about what I don’t know how to explain because someone else has better words to explain it for me.

    • Aspie Kt says:

      One day I would love to tell my students why I ‘get’ them…but for now, understanding them just has to be enough. One day we will be brave, and tell the world.

  14. Leah Kelley says:

    You expressed yourself beautifully and I am so very moved by your words… I don’t know how anyone’s words could be better than that! Thank you for sharing your voice and your powerful perspective!

    Leah

  15. I loved this and the comments. When I got my diagnosis in my fifties I “outed” myself immediately (I am one of those Aspies who doesn’t think about consequences except in retrospect) and while I think I annoyed some people, on balance it has actually helped me because most of the people I know have been prepared to be accommodating.

  16. Mrs. Teacher Lady says:

    I don’t know what to say. Thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts and their pain. I had felt so isolated and removed from everything. Having read everyone’s responses has given me the courage to post this letter on my Facebook page. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I think it is going to be alright.

    Leah, I can’t thank you enough for posting my letter on your blog. You not only helped me make that first big step toward “coming-out”, but, in doing so, have helped others with their own journey. Advocacy is tough work, but you do it well.

    • If you’re comfortable allowing any of us to “like” your Facebook page, send the link! I will be over in an instant! :)

      • Aspie Kt says:

        Yes, please Mrs. Teacher Lady…perhaps then we can set up a closed group on FB where we can all chat and further share our unique and special expereince if being able to use our insight to support students and make things just a little easier for them.

  17. Pingback: Disclosing Autism at Work: Strategies and Supports from Karla’s ASD Page | Thirty Days of Autism

  18. stefanie says:

    i have autism an learing disbiltys i been gertting help since a child .i cant really hide my autism but in some situion i may only say i have ld if iu feel likle that the iusse that showing up .i dont care if people no or not .but it not the first thing that come out of my mouth .im a person not a disibilty lol but for some reasion most of my aspie friends donmt think they have to tell anyone or they think no one can tell .they tend to play the game i got a serct .os it hard having kids like u .i think about having a child .but worry wnhat if the child is more severe then me .my mom said they didnt no if i end up were i am today

  19. Pingback: Listening to Autism: A letter from Mrs. Teacher Lady « Raising kids with diagnosed/undiagnosed autism

  20. Reading this, i was really moved by the connection the kid who could not speak had with the teacher. I am really starting to understand more about the connection of people needing more accommodations share with one another…it’s like living in a different realm. All that is required is patience and unconditional love, that is what matters. I really enjoyed hearing about how being a teacher affected how others treated her, making the assumption that she was going to change into something that was not helpful for her, or at too fast of a pace to make her feel welcome in the teaching community. I will say, i am truly inspired by the connection she made, and how her son feels so comfortable accepting his asperger’s, it just brings me to happy tears. I really appreciate people like her who an inspiration to teachers and students on the spectrum who feel misunderstood and would like to feel more included in making friends and talking about similar interests. Thank you for sharing her letter, that was really awesome of you. Lots of hugs and love,
    ~Maya

  21. Lynda Young says:

    Wonderful sharing of your heart- and you can see how others relate and need a voice. Blessings!

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